Q & A with Sr. Nancyann Turner, bringing Christmas joy to all regardless of income

Adrian Dominican Sr. Nancyann Turner, right, works on an art project with a girl at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program in Detroit. (Provided photo)

Adrian Dominican Sr. Nancyann Turner understands the stress that comes with preparing for Christmas. In fact, she knows better than most: She only has to look at her clients, parents made poor who desperately want to give their children a Christmas to remember but do not have the money for the gifts they think they need to buy to do so.

Turner is the children's program manager at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit, where her clients barely have enough to survive on, let alone buy expensive Christmas gifts — or in some cases, any gifts at all.

But that doesn't mean there isn't joy.

As Turner wrote in a short blog post recently, she and her team at the soup kitchen are teaching clients that creating things can be much more meaningful for both the giver and receiver than purchased gifts. There are other benefits, too: The act of creation brings back the joy and wonder of Christmas, which is all too often missing amid poverty, and it helps avoid the trap some people fall into of borrowing money to pay for gifts.

GSR: Most people who do not live in poverty imagine that Christmas must be an even more desperate and depressing time than usual for those without money. But you've found that doesn't have to be true.

Turner: We want children to grow up with awe and wonder and imagination, and when you give them a chance to create with their hands, that can happen. When I look at them working in the garden, it brings out a whole different dimension in a child. We do a huge art program, and I see how the art helps them in ways no other subject does in stretching their imagination and having them plan things out.

Art is often a great way of dealing with stress, so we do a lot of creative things with families and moms. The moms make Christmas wreaths that stores would probably sell for $100. They're just beautiful. It's so meaningful, because when you're in poverty, you have to let go of a lot of customs just to survive. But by making wreaths, at least they can decorate their front door.

The children are going to make Christmas cookies. That brings out their fun and delight and creativity in ways hardly anything else does except when we make Easter eggs. I just feel like there's something so precious about using your hands and your heart to create gifts or create something for your home. And that's something you don't have to spend a lot of money on.

Adrian Dominican Sr. Nancyann Turner, third from left, poses with students at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program in Detroit. (Provided photo)

Many people believe that beyond the basics of food, clothing and shelter, one of the most tragic losses for children living in poverty is the loss of that awe and wonder of childhood. You're able to help them find that again?

I'm not sure how to program it, but I know it when I see it. It's their eyes when they see how something turned out that they made. It's teaching them new ways of making things or trying out new things.

They are in awe of gardening. Of course, they think all food comes from a gas station, so when they plant seeds, that to them is a miracle. A philosopher once said that so much violence is due to a lack of imagination, and these children are surrounded by violence, so we try so hard in our classes to talk about alternatives to violence. When you create, you're using that imagination, making it stronger.

Every Christmas, I'm pleading with our moms: Don't be begging to borrow tons of money you'll have to pay back. Most of those expensive toys will be broken the same day. We try to help them not to feel the pressure of keeping up with the TV ads. Everyone today connects the Christmas spirit with buying jewelry. They're missing the point.

It sounds like you're giving clients a lot more than just food — you're giving them hope.

We're like a family here. We have a great time. I work at a soup kitchen with a great spirit. You give and receive — it's mutual.

One thing is we don't want people to always be on the receiving end. In helping them make things themselves, that's empowering to them. They often feel powerless. Even if they do have a job, the wages are usually pretty meager. Lots of the people I serve are trying to work, but by the time they take three buses and find child care, it's almost impossible.

But you don't have to have a lot of money to celebrate Christmas. Let us help you be creative and make something even more meaningful.

Sr. Nancyann Turner, left, works on an art project with a girl at the Rosa Parks Children and Youth Program. (Provided photo)

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]